As Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter once stated, “It is a fair summary of history to say that the safeguards of liberty have often been forged in controversies involving not very nice people.” To say that the members of the Westboro Baptist Church are “not very nice people” would be an understatement.
The church members and their leader, Fred Phelps, have gained notoriety in the past few years by protesting the funerals of soldiers who have died in combat claiming that their deaths are retribution for America’s tolerance of homosexuality. Their hateful picketing landed them in a lawsuit that made its way to the Supreme Court which ruled last week in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church. As upsetting as the tactics of the so-called church may be, we agree with the decision that the protection of freedom of speech must extend even to groups that the vast majority of Americans find patently offensive.
In an 8-1 decision the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment protects the picketing of funerals by the church members. The rationale behind the ruling was that the protesters were at a far enough distance that they had not disrupted the funeral itself. They were making their statements on public property, which they have a right to do.
While they were making the protest near the funeral of the deceased soldier they did not identify him directly with their signs and the statements made were directed at a general audience. The statements would be understood by an objective viewer not to be statements of fact and the content of the protest surrounded a hotly-debated public issue, not a private concern, and therefore retained First Amendment protection.
The lone dissenter in the debate was by Justice Samuel Alito, who believed the antics at the funeral protest were so extreme that they would be considered intentional infliction of emotional distress. The acts of Phelps and his followers were certainly opportunistic and cast a stain on what should have been a time to grieve and mourn their loved one, Matthew Snyder.
The group did, however, follow the established protocol to have a public protest and even alerted the police as to the time and place they would be holding their event. Had the group invaded the private funeral taking place they would have clearly abused their right to free speech.
But, as Chief Justice John Roberts stated, speaking for the Court, “Westboro addressed matters of public import on public property, in a peaceful manner, in full compliance with the guidance of local officials.”
The acts of the Westboro Baptist Church are vile, hateful and downright vicious. Signs reading “You’re Going to Hell” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” are waved just outside the funerals where families and friends are burying their loved one. As distasteful as these acts may be, however, the implications of restricting these protests could be even more harmful.
The freedom of speech is the bedrock of a democratic society. Allowing for the free flow of ideas, however distasteful, gives citizens the ability to discern for themselves the validity of a proposed belief.
By extending the freedom of speech to everyone it is understood that offensive and hateful speech will be invited into the public debate as well as speech that society finds more acceptable.
The Westboro Baptist Church comprises a meager 71 members, a majority of which are related to their leader, Fred Phelps. While their speech may have gained plenty of exposure, that exposure should not be confused as influence.
Although they may have won their day in court, in the minds of the vast majority of freedom-loving people, their hateful ideas will never win any ground.